Remembering My Hat

15th January 2014

Enduring Love? End-of-project seminar

Filed under: Uncategorized — rememberingmyhat @ 16:50

Yesterday I went to the end-of-project seminar for Enduring Love? Couple relationships in the 21st century, at the British Library’s conference centre,

I know quite a lot about this project already, so I’m only noting here things that are new to me. For more general overviews you can see the project website here and the media, passim! As ever, I took these notes mainly for my own benefit, so apologies if they do not make sense to people who are not me. Comments in square brackets are my responses to what was being said, not the speakers.

Introductory remarks from Jacqui Gabb and Janet Fink

Were explicitly not assuming that longevity of relationships was a good thing, just interested in how relationships do come to endure.

Had Strategy Group (non-academics – practitioners, govt organisations, NGOs) as well as Advisory Panel (academics, mainly discussing research methods?)

Ruth Sutherland, CEO of Relate

What would we do differently as a society if we prioritised relationships, or applied a ‘Relationship Test’ to policy – prison, working patterns? [Interesting question, but I’m not persuaded that we should always prioritise relationships – runs the danger of getting quite individualised]

Challenge of ‘Impact’ agenda for vol orgs too –easier to show for cancer cures than Relate [like hard science v soc science]

Carol Smart

Wanting to challenge narratives of rising divorce rates (not actually true), decline of marriage, lack of commitment, growth of isolation. Let’s resist this narrative. Enduring Love project helps to do this.

Doesn’t like this narrative because it undervalues the work and commitment people put into their relationships.

Need to move from structural perspectives (‘are you married or not’) to ones that think about interior of relationships – family practices (David Morgan coined phrase).

Identifying growth of sociological research looking at minutiae of relationship practices.

Importance of bickering to maintaining relationships! ‘Reflexive bickering’ – comes from research of young people in civil partnerships with Brian Heaphy.

Where does the couple start and end? Popular ideal in their study was sitting on sofa watching tv. But who is sitting on the sofa? Not just the couple. Relational biographies mean that people’s parents, their past relationships, their hopes for future (e.g. future children). We need to think about all this in relation to couples, as well as the structural issues. 

Jacqui Gabb and Janet Fink – The Main Findings

They don’t have the answers  to ‘what makes relationships endure’. Even though journalists want the answer!

Relationships that are enduring are also endured. Go through peaks and troughs across the life course. The good, the bad and the ugly. Why do we call previous relationships ‘failed relationships’?

What is a couple anyway?

Relationship work as problematic term [why? I like it]

Cup of tea (sometimes coffee) was unexpectedly important. Especially for mothers, much less so for childless men. Intended to code it under ‘thoughtful gestures’ but in the end gave it a code of it’s own because so prominent!

People had lots of relationship stressors (bereavement, birth of children, unemployment etc), but this didn’t have a bad effect on relationship – in fact the opposite. The more stressors they had, the higher their scores on relationship maintenance, satisfaction etc. Something about working through stressors together? Silences and secrets can be beneficial and thoughtful [although I think this probably depends on how your relationship works]

[Idea for a small research project: the significance and meanings of a cup of tea in relationships!]

People often talk about watching tv as dead time for relationships, but their research shows that people rate it highly – talking about it, pleasurable, bring the couple together. Sharing a space, cuddled up together ‘biographical anchor’ (Heaphy et al.).

Main explanation for lowest rates of relationship maintenance in heterosexual parents is actually probably longevity of relationship – they’ve been together longer on average than LGBQ parents and are older. Longer relationship has gone on, less relationship maintenance goes on.

Couples very diverse. We need to rethink what constitutes a couple. If the couple is the weft, the warp is children, other lovers, parents, pets, friends, past relationships, future hopes.]

Multisensory methods.

Couples are what couples do. Let’s move away from ‘married or not’ or ‘dysfunctional or functional’. Contexts, resources, personalities, make huge differences, much more than these categories

Generational diffs: Younger couples relationships can be an adventure. Mid-life responsibilities can overwhelm relationships, later life tensions between opportunities and obligations


(cc) Mike Baird

Panel discussion

Lynne Jamieson: ‘Relationship work’ reduces relationships to saving/ investment / monetarised ideas [But that’s not what ‘work’ evokes for me. Aha, maybe that’s why ‘relationship work’ works for me!].

Kindness, politeness, social glue – outside couples too in friendship. Relationship work in friendships and other civil relationships. Important as more people are living alone.

Penny Mansfield (One-plus-one)

Distinguishing the partnership / shared project from the relationship. Partnership can start as Being Soulmates turns into Parenting Alliance!

Social media  and digital resources as exciting new tool to support relationships – not as hardcore as going to a counsellor.

Naomi Eisenstadt (Researcher on children, childcare, parenting etc.)

[Research is getting reframed as ‘having children negatively impacts on relationships’. That’s certainly how The Guardian is selling it. But I think they are saying something more nuanced and complex than that]

Need for more preparation for parenthood and how parenthood changes relationships.

The answer to everything is ‘love and money’! Everything works if there is enough love and enough money. Economics and relationships.

General Discussion

Q: Mothers may respond that children are the most important person in life because of societal pressures to state that. Hyper responsibilities of mothering in current culture.

JG: 40% don’t say that, suggests not completely compelling, but yes, a good point. That’s why we said the quant analysis was only leading ways into the qual, not the main point of the analysis

Q: We just did study of 65+ relationships – found much more about poor quality relationships that were endured – need for new term ‘living together apart’! Not going to divorce, for lots of reasons, but not having positive relationships. Just waiting for the other one to die. Want space because they can’t bear the sight of each other.

JF: Apartness important in these relas. Sustaining relationship. Nobody in the study understood their relationship as bad. But did say it had ebbs and flows. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, part of the life course. Saw possibility of future improvement.

JG: The ambience, the white noise of the relationship. The fish not noticing the water. The stuff that’s there all the time. You only notice when it’s taken away. Routine fabric of relationships.

Q: When did couple relationships become an object of reflection, historically/geneaological? And how does this kind of analysis play out in the relationships themselves.

JF: Don’t know to first Q. All v reflective about their relationships, across age groups (contra previous research) and socio-economic background.

JG: All said they were more reflective than their parents! May not have been, but that was the story they told.

Ans: Earlier R focused on good relationships, then 40-50 years of focus on bad relationships, until very recently.

Q: Where’s the mess and the anger and the horrible stuff? It all seems too nice and tidy. What about the dirty bits of the relationship?

JG: It is there in the data. Maybe it wasn’t represented very well today. But yes those are absolutely part of relationships. It’s a soup! Media coverage makes it looks tidier. And the quant study – quant stuff always looks tidy.

[I think this is also a research effect. Less likely to get people taking part in a study on ‘Enduring Love’ if they are mostly experiencing their long-term relationship as bad at the moment].

Q: Any more consensual non-monogamy in sample?

JG: Haven’t focused on this because it’s an identity not a practice [I’m not sure about that]. Samples did include, partly as deliberate sampling strategy, but also unexpected  – apparently trad heterosexual couple who turned out to have open relationship. But doesn’t mean no couple boundaries and rules and indeed may have more [or more explicit?]

Future directions

Roll out survey in other nations? Improve sampling of under-represented groups like gay men

Policy conversations

Do more professional practice dialogue. Research started with Impact stuff – what would be useful? Interviewed all big stakeholders first. Especially Relate (co-funded PhD student) and one-plus-one. Counsellors have found emotion maps really useful –turn that into an App? Put it in to counselling practice

Relationship education, especially across age groups – agencies tend to work in age silos.

More dialogue between Research Centres. Combining datasets from studies?

Publications. Policy piece in Families, Relationships and Intimacies by Martina. One coming on emotion maps in clinical contexts. JG and JF books. Let them know about ideas for co-pubs and combining data sets.


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